Talk to Al Jazeera

Noam Chomsky: The responsibility of privilege

The famed linguist and political activist says intellectuals have a moral duty to hold centres of power to account.

Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky remains as vigorous as ever at the age of 84.

His popularity – or notoriety as some would say – endures because he is still criticising politicians, business leaders and other powerful figures for not acting in the public’s best interest. At the heart of Chomsky’s work is examining the ways elites use their power to control millions of people, and pushing the public to resist.

In this episode of Talk to Al Jazeera, Noam Chomsky sits down with Rosiland Jordan to talk about the two main tracks of his life: research and political activism.

And it is his activism that keeps this US scholar engaged in the public discourse well into his ninth decade.

“The activism for me long antedates the professional work,” Chomsky says. “I grew up that way. So I was a political activist as a teenager in the 1940s before I ever heard of linguistics.”

Discussing US politics, he attributes the growing popularity of the Tea Party movement, and the fanatical opposition to President Barack Obama in some quarters, to what he calls “pathological paranoia”.

“It’s something that exists in the country. It’s a very frightened country, always has been,” he says.

At the same time, Chomsky sees Obama himself as a man without a “moral centre”.

“If you look at his policies I think that’s what they reveal. I mean there’s some nice rhetoric here and there but when you look at the actual policies … the drone assassination campaign is a perfectly good example, I mean it’s just a global assassination campaign.”

On Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank, Chomsky says “there was no effort” by Obama to even try and curb it.

“[Obama’s] telling Netanyahu and the other Israeli leaders: I’ll tap you on the wrist but go ahead and do what you like …. So in fact, Obama is actually the first president who hasn’t really imposed restrictions on Israel.”

Chomsky also criticises neoliberal programmes which, he says, have played a large part in the ongoing global financial crisis and are “pretty harmful” almost everywhere they have been implemented.

“[In] the 1950s and the 1960s, which was the biggest growth period in American history, financial institutions were regulated. The New Deal regulations were in place and there were no financial crisis, none …. Starting in the 1970s it changed pretty radically. There were decisions made – not laws of nature – to reconstruct the economy.”

And decades later, these decisions have resulted in a situation which “really is a catastrophe,” he says.

But Chomsky also feels that “nothing’s ever gone too far. Anything can be reversed; these are human decisions.”

He emphasises: “The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have.”

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